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Census offers portrait of the Valley's diversity

Demographic study of the region's 1.74million residents is expected to help secure funds for anti-poverty, housing and transit efforts.

December 08, 2006|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

The San Fernando Valley lost its bid for secession in 2002.

But the U.S. Census Bureau gave the region something of a consolation prize Thursday with the release of the first-ever demographic snapshot of the region.

It showed that Valley residents make more money, spend more of it on housing and endure longer commutes to work than the average American.

The findings, while far from unexpected, were met with pride from Valley leaders who see it as an important step in being viewed as distinct from the Greater Los Angeles area.

L.A.'s Valley neighborhoods, combined with the cities of Glendale, Burbank, Calabasas and San Fernando, had a population of 1.74 million in 2005, making it larger than every American city but New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

The census report resulted from a hard-fought battle by Valley leaders to have the area recognized as geographically distinct from the rest of the city and county. It will allow elected leaders to pursue federal and state funds based on its unique demographics, said U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who represents a large portion of the Valley and helped pave the way for the region to gain separate status last year with the Census Bureau.

The designation came after the Valley failed in its effort to break away from the city of Los Angeles. During the campaign, some Valley residents questioned whether accurate demographic statistics about the region existed.

"It may have even started before the secession debate, but it reflected the same kind of cynicism and suspicion on the part of Valley residents that they were a donor region, not a recipient region, when it came to dollars spent," said L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents part of the Valley. "So when taxes were raised, they were the first to pay dearly, but when it came to getting services, they were not the first to receive. Most of us were not in a position to be able to argue the interests of the Valley in the best possible way or in context to the rest of the region."

The report should dispel the idea that the Valley is filled only with financially well-off white people. It found that more than 72,000 households have incomes under $15,000.

"There is significant poverty in the Valley, justifying our requests for housing funds and for inclusion in tax-incentive empowerment zones," Sherman said.

According to the report -- which surveyed households only and had a margin of error of about 3% -- 1,032,000 Valley residents were born in the United States, and 711,000 were foreign born. In terms of languages spoken in the home, 668,000 households spoke English only, and 956,000 spoke a language other than English.

"The Valley has become a port of entry for foreign-born people right along with the rest of L.A.," said Dan Blake, director of the San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center at Cal State Northridge.

Of the Valley's foreign-born residents, 264,000 were from Asian countries and 374,000 from Latin American countries.

"It tells you something about the foreign-born in the Valley," Blake said. "It's illuminating for people who are thinking of opening ethnically oriented markets and shops and providing services and so on. There's a stereotype that a lot of people are carrying around, but now we have the up-to-date information of who is really in the Valley."

At the same time, the median home price in the region -- meaning the price at which half are higher and half lower -- was found to be $524,800, higher than that in the city, county and state.

Yet the median household income in the Valley was estimated at $51,700, compared with $53,600 statewide and $46,200 nationwide.

"I see folks in the Valley with their median income, earning four, five, six thousand dollars or more per year (than the national median) and spending it all on housing," Sherman said. "We really don't have more disposable income."

Sherman said the data would aid efforts to make more low-cost mortgages available to Valley residents and to preserve the income tax deduction on mortgage interest.

"These issues are particularly important to the typical Valley homeowner," he said. "The buyer of a $500,000 or a $600,000 home in the Valley is a local teacher or police officer -- not a millionaire."

The findings also estimated that Valley residents spent an average of 29 minutes commuting to work, compared with a statewide average of 27 minutes and a national average of 25 minutes.

Sherman said that information would be useful in seeking federal transportation dollars and state funding under Proposition 1B, a $19.9-billion state transportation bond approved last month by voters.

Besides using it to extract dollars from the government, the census report might help economic leaders lure new businesses and jobs to the Valley, officials said.

The data show that more than 107,000 residents have graduate or professional degrees and an additional 227,000 have bachelor's degrees.

"Businesses are looking for an educated workforce," Sherman said.

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